Timber Timbre: Hot Dreams
Taylor Kirk, frontman of the band Timber Timbre, wears his masculinity like Nicholas Cage’s bear suit from The Wicker Man remake. Singing in a baritone composed of half Stephin Merritt and half grizzled swamp dweller, he tells of love, threats, and promises with an idiosyncratically desperate glint in his eye. His 2011 album’s title, Creep On Creepin’ On, lets us in on the “joke” if it can be called that. To be precise, it highlights the high kitsch that is the lifeblood of their music. Kirk’s voice has been called an embodiment of Halloween, the music he makes with his band is frequently called “cinematic.” If so, their scores would accompany Italian B Westerns and gothic romance. For, while there’s nothing unserious or winking about Hot Dreams or any of its predecessors, the music has a heightened affect to it. When Kirk is being seductive or alluring he accompanies it with a prowling menace that has just a shade of cartoon fakery to it. Halloween is a good analogue for this band because it can be plenty threatening if you take all the ghouls seriously, but it’s also a cesspool of seedy pranks, “sexy” costumes, and Vegas-level exploitation. The falseness is half charming, half repellent, and this is the fine line that Timber Timbre walks, mostly successfully.
I admit, though, I was worried about this one. When the band released the title track as a single for promotional purposes, they paired it with a music video that reminded me of the worst parts of One From the Heart. It was all leering sexual exploitation, misogyny, and empty glitter, a strip-club spectacle that robbed the song of all of its sultriness. Sexy music and sexy imagery often don’t go together as well as you might think, and this video is a good example of that. After watching that, I doubted both the quality of what was to come and my affections for Creep On Creepin’ On. Kirk’s wolfish way of singing about women was and is by far his least appealing tendency, and the “Hot Dreams” video made my hands go all clammy.
After listening to the album a few times, however, I realize I overestimated how much Vegas neon had crept into the band’s work. As always, the true American touchstone for Timber Timbre isn’t the Strip but Hollywood. When it’s sleazy it’s sleazy like the inside of a car at a drive-in. The music has this gentle majesty to it, an Ennio Morricone-esque ability to evoke wilderness. Kirk’s voice reverberates through these cavernous compositions in its world-weary fashion, and songs usually slither and creep along at BPMs way down in the double digits. Longtime collaborator Colin Stetson lends his saxophone to the proceedings, exploiting the instrument’s sensuality as well as his own unique capacity to produce nightmarish walls of sound through circular breathing techniques.
While I do think that most of the roughed-up dark stranger persona Kirk uses is nothing more than a theatrical mask, the music still has a violent edge to it that I can’t entirely disregard as an act. The penultimate track on the album, “Run From Me,” is a hair-raising piano number that’s self-deprecating and lovelorn but also intimidating. Unlike most threats you hear in pop music, you believe Kirk when he sings it, and the fact that the song transforms from what sounds like a murder ballad-to-be into spaghetti western soundtrack music leaves the song mired in ambiguity. Suffice to say that Hot Dreams has some unpleasant sexual and gender politics buried in its (sub)text. While that’s more interesting than some of the bland treatments those subjects get in some music, it’s still not something I’m willing to forgive all the way.
Hot Dreams brings the formerly swampy sounds of Timber Timbre into the arid wastes of the American West. It’s still unsettling and fraught with peril, but for the most part worth the risk. Few folk albums are likely to come along that sound so fully developed, even if the ideas running through them might be more endearing than what we find here. It’s certainly an incisive if somewhat heightened portrait of insecure, predatory masculinity, and there’s enough of a critical remove to appreciate it, but I’m never entirely sure what the band is thinking.